The nihilistic and brutal atmosphere of the Mad Max film series initially seems like an unusual choice for an open-world "vehicular combat" game. However, the dystopian, post-apocalyptic Australia provides a setting that brings to mind a combination of Fallout and Rage. With Avalanche Studios behind the wheel for the game, seasoned veterans of the sandbox genre after working on the Just Cause titles, there are a lot of interesting ideas in Mad Max.
Our hands-off demonstration was taken from a pre-Alpha build of the game running on a PlayStation 4 and the visuals were notably impressive. The desert environments were realistically arid with a bleached-out colour palette occasionally punctuated by outcrops of dark, jagged rocks. Despite the easy comparisons to other post-apocalyptic titles, Mad Max had a different feel to it that was somehow far bleaker.
Despite being based on the film series, the game does not feature likenesses of Mel Gibson or Tom Hardy (from the forthcoming Mad Max: Fury Road). Instead Avalanche Studios have opted to create Max Rockatansky in their own image and his look is something of a disappointment. While his trademark leathers are present, everything else about the protagonist looks like a generic mash-up of dozens of other gaming male leads. There was nothing distinctive about Max, or much of his character, in the footage we were shown. Admittedly this was a short preview designed to highlight the gameplay and mechanics but it is a worry whether the developers can capture more of "Max". His personality, as well as his actions, forms the soul of the franchise and we hope Avalanche Studios simply had not got the time to show more of the man himself.
Aside from our initial hesitancy over the characterisation of Max, the rest of the game seemed to capture the atmosphere of the bleak world presented in the films. Set in a world where resources are virtually depleted after a global conflict, survival is the focus for humanity. Max finds himself roaming the wasteland that used to be Australia in search of valuable commodities such as fuel, scrap metal, ammunition, food and water. Little was described to us in terms of the game's story, but the themes of survival and having to battle for everything, no matter how large or small, will be the focus.
The developers began the presentation by showing off Max's new vehicle, the Magnum Opus which seems to have replaced his trusty Road Warrior ride. Max is no longer the loner the films have portrayed him as, instead being joined by his borderline insane mechanic, Chumbucket. Throughout the demonstration, Chumbucket rode in the rear of the car occasionally lending a hand during combat. His character seemed a little unusual and could take some getting used to. It will be important for the developers to avoid making him too much of a bizarre figure or overemphasising his role as light relief for the more dour hero.
We got the impression that the Magnum Opus is as much the star of the game as Max, with the vehicle being fully customisable and upgradable depending on player preference. While there will be over 50 vehicles that can be driven, the Magnum Opus will be the main focus and can be tweaked and modified by jumping into a menu mid-game. The menu screen shows the car and it was amazing to see the amount of tweaks and adjustments that can be made to everything from the engine and tyres to the weight and adding hubcap-scythes.
Creating a custom Magnum Opus is essential and the variability on offer has been designed to foster different play styles. It is possible to heavily armour your car, effectively transforming it into a tank that can withstand heavy damage, but the offset of this will be reduced speeds making chases more difficult. Equally, stripping down the weight and adding a powerful engine will make your vehicle very fast but vulnerable and prone to using more fuel. It was a remarkably robust system that brought to mind a more accessible Gran Turismo.
At this stage the developers exited the menu, dropping Max and Chumbucket in the middle of the desert. With an enemy convoy driving across a wrecked motorway in the distance, Max set out to take down the main vehicle and salvage some previous resources needed to complete a mission. The Magnum Opus is a powerful beast and thankfully, Chumbucket had kitted it out with some quality suspension and off-road tyres allowing Max to close the gap on the convoy by taking a more direct route. The physics as the car bounced its way across uneven terrain was remarkable and the plumes of dust that shot into the air were pretty cinematic.
Avalanche Studios are aiming for the action in the game to involve plenty of vehicle-based combat, which could well have simply involved chasing and ramming. Thankfully, what we witnessed was anything but simple and brought to mind the epic finale of Mad Max 2:The Road Warrior. As Max drew level with the convoy's outlying bodyguard vehicles, Chumbucket began to prove his worth by equipping a harpoon. Standing up in the rear of the vehicle, he plunged a roped spear into one of the enemy cars. This had the dramatic effect of ripping the rear axle completely off, sending the car spinning out of control into a pile of rocks. It was pretty shocking with the damage effects and flying shards of debris giving the chase an exhilarating sense of danger.
Max then proceeded to smash another truck off the road before drawing level with the leading car, which had an attached fuel tank on the back. Holding the Magnum Opus steady, he took aim with his sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun and sunk two rounds into the tank. Ammunition is scarce and the developers informed us this was a relative luxury, but the visual effect was impressive as flames spewed from the ruptured container. Within a few seconds the fire had spread, causing the enemy car to crash off the road and explode. Walking over to the wreckage, Max searched the charred body for items of value before coolly climbing back into the driver's seat of the Magnum Opus and driving off.
It was a remarkably impressive set piece and the developers are aiming to make every chase feel cinematic. The differences in the Magnum Opus' set-up, as well as the enemy vehicles' random load-outs, are designed to make each bout of vehicular combat unique and varied. If car combat is always as intense and gritty as what was shown then Mad Max could well be a new experience and it is difficult to find a title with comparable driving-action.
As Max made his way through the landscape, he paused to examine the in-game map which showed the enormity of the world. Dotted across the map were dozens of points of interest, each with a small symbol next to them. The developers explained these corresponded to important survival resources and could reflect convoys, bandit encampments and other similar challenges for Max to complete to earn items such as food, scrap and fuel. Driving onwards towards a narrow pass, Chumbucket pointed out a sniper guarding the route ahead.
Mad Max is not simply about vehicular battles and following Max on foot felt more like a conventional third-person shooter. It was not clear whether there would be a cover system employed, but given the scarcity of ammunition it seems unlikely. Equipping a "Thunderstick", a grenade attached to a spear, Max made a brutal entry to combat by throwing it into an enemy's chest and watched him explode. Switching to his fists he proceeded to brawl with another bandit, snapping his neck before killing the remaining foe with his hunting knife.
The combat seemed visceral but not entirely smooth with the animations and hit detection seeming a little shaky, though this is a pre-Alpha build of the game. Max then proceeded to sneak up on the sniper, who seemed entirely oblivious to the sound of the recent mass-brawl. Getting within range allowed him to stealth kill the bandit with a gruesome takedown move. Collecting the rifle allowed Max to survey the pass ahead, which was surrounded by a bandit encampment with entry barred to it by a large metal gate.
Returning to the Magnum Opus, he proceeded to use the scrap gathered from the earlier chase to upgrade the vehicle. Jumping back into the car menu he added a battering ram in the form of a "Demolition Grill", an attachment ideally suited to taking down fortifications. However, the additional weight required the front suspension and tyres to be upgraded. Upgrading the vehicle will require forethought and tactical planning to get the maximum efficiency from the car.
Having upgraded the vehicle ready for battle, Max climbed to the roof of his vehicle in order to thin some of the bandit numbers before directly assaulting. Equipping the large calibre sniper rifle, he surveyed the camp for targets (bringing to mind Far Cry 3) before prioritising two snipers sitting high up on industrial towers. Using a series of handily placed explosive barrels, he demolished the first tower sending the sniper plummeting to his death. Quickly, turning his scope he entered a duel with the other bandit whose position was given away by a nice use of lens flare from the scope of his rifle. Scoring a headshot prompted a kill camera that followed the bullet directly into the skull of the enemy. This brought to mind the same mechanic used in Max Payne. We imagine any game with a Max as the protagonist has to have this sniping animation included.
Max then hopped back into the driver's seat and accelerated toward the gate, smashing into it at high speed. Thankfully the battering ram held strong and sent the metal barrier flying. Weaving in between barricades and running over several unfortunate bandits, Max and Chumbucket made it through the pass alive as the presentation drew to a close. It was a chaotic ending and visually the destruction of the encampment looked very impressive on the next-generation system.
Mad Max was a definite surprise at E3, with the announcement catching many off guard. The understanding Avalanche Studios have for the open-world genre is clear and they have managed to capture the bleak world view in the game. The vehicular combat looks to be both original and exciting, even if the on-foot fighting appeared more familiar. Our biggest concern will be how well the game can integrate the two together without either aspect suffering. Despite these worries, it was pleasing to see a fresh experience that is not afraid to try something different and for that Mad Max should be commended. Expect to see more from the title soon before its 2014 release on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.